A couple of years ago Bryan and I were planning an adult trip to California with friends, which was going to include a good bit of driving from San Francisco to Sonoma to Tahoe. My husband briefly suggested that we rent an RV, to which one of our friends replied, “I am NOT going on a vacation which requires the toilet to travel with us.” This was a good two years prior to COVID, after which all travel stopped for months, and then timidly restarted with severe limitations and changes.
The first couple of forays we had into the changed landscape of travel in a COVID-stricken world revealed that the “service” aspect of travel no longer exists, at least for now. The little niceties that you take for granted even at Holiday Inn–people making your bed, replacing your towels, free coffee, extra hand soaps and shampoos, aren’t part of the deal anymore, but here’s the catch, you’re still paying the same price. We haven’t quite figured out if the travel/hospitality industry is really paralyzed by fear that they’re going to transmit or contract COVID, or if they’ve realized that they can still get paid for doing much less work.
Either way, pulling a toilet with you and having all your preferred comforts along for the ride no longer sounded as low brow, because at least you’re going somewhere. In fact, it started sounding quite convenient and adventurous. Which is why when my husband and I looked at our December calendar, (at a journey that started falling together in chunks from North Carolina to Colorado and back with multiple stops along the way) a camper-trailer seemed like the only way to go.
We started researching with a week to spare before we needed to leave, and our list of requirements narrowed the field significantly. Our camper had to be light enough to be pulled by an F-150, but new enough that it would be attractive to other RVers should we decide to rent it and have a low likelihood of major repair needed in the near future. It needed to have sleeping quarters for a family of five, lots of storage, to be able to handle freezing temps, and be within our budget (always the hard part).
We settled on the Keystone Outback Ultralite, and because my husband is a master at finding the very best deal possible, we were able to snag a 2021 OU that had been returned to a dealership in Mississippi and was now available for much less because the first owners had gotten a divorce. And Mississippi just happened to be the second stop on our voyage–it was meant to be.
The combined camping experience between me and Bryan until December included multiple backpacking trips in the US and Europe, car camping at state parks with our kids, and a couple of years with a rugged pop-out, tent camper we’d purchased in Germany. I didn’t expect to feel any differently about our new vessel than I did about any other camp setup, but I was quite surprised by the excitement and anticipation that swept over me the first time I stepped into Grayson, which is what I named our camper.
I saw her as our ship, our literal home on the road, our cozy nest, our opportunity. In a year when at times I felt the walls of my home closing around me as events were cancelled one after the other, here was our key, our safe place to base ourselves as we explored, got away and adventured. And she is so lovely–gray barnwood interior, plush leather recliners and bench seats, a flat-screen TV and hidden pantry with loads of space, goose-neck faucet and roomy shower.
After stocking her full of supplies I’d ordered and sent to my sister’s house in Biloxi, and a couple of Walmart runs later, we flipped open the brand new Good Sam camping catalog that we’d acquired with our membership at Camping World and pointed ourselves westward toward our ultimate destination of Grand Junction, Colorado where we were meeting my in-laws for Christmas.
What We Learned About Camping/RVing
Since our first experience with a camper was during COVID, we have no basis of comparison for our trip versus what it is like to RV during “normal” times. I imagine that a lot of the nuances of actually driving, running, operating a camper are similar to what others know, but I also suspect the novelties and amenities of camping, being in a community of campers, and the proximity you can have to other people in your same demographic, has been significantly diminished by COVID, like everything else.
I now know that we were very ambitious with our first trip–not only did we do this during COVID, we did it for a month during winter, during Christmas, when you have to pack the bulkiest clothing into the most limited space for an extended period of time. We had multiple events/occasions to consider: a wedding in Alabama, virtual school, Christmas and skiing in Colorado. So it wasn’t just clothes we were stuffing into every possible crevice of Grayson–there were laptops, notebooks, folders, gifts, skis, boots, helmets. It was cold everywhere we went, so we spent very little time outside and had to give each other a lot of grace and get very creative with our little space.
We learned that we suddenly noticed campers everywhere–mini campers, travel trailers, fifth wheels and luxurious RV’s— more and more the farther west we drove. We learned that pulling a travel trailer drastically altered the quality of our ride, so we began to notice and remember which states have the smoothest roads, and realized that we didn’t really want to be on them for more than three hours if we could help it. A rough stretch of asphalt meant our daughter needed Dramamine (and may mean that we need a bigger truck) and almost always meant that I found snacks and spices scattered across the floor of the pantry when we’d reached our stop for the night. We learned about winterizing hoses at night so that our water lines didn’t freeze and break, that for off-the-grid-camping you need a big jug of water with which to wash, flush and brush.
We discovered the intimacy and shivering closeness of private lunches of soups cooked over our gas stove-top, or sandwiches of cold-cuts, as the five of us squished and huddled onto our bench seat dinette. We figured out how to time our showers in an RV in winter to about seven minutes before the hot water is gone. We found out how to latch the doors properly so they didn’t slide off track during a long drive, the importance of bins and storage racks, precisely in which order to flush your gray and black water, how to take wide turns into a gas station, which gas stations refill your propane, and on and on. We bounced back and forth between phone hot-spots and public WiFi for work and school.
We grew as a family. Because the chores were novel in Grayson, the kids found it fun to help with washing and drying dishes, sweeping and mopping the floor, and helping Daddy with connecting and disconnecting hoses and cords. Everyone had a part to play to keep the ship running smoothly so that we could continue on our voyage. When the time came for us to do real life, we turned Grayson into a mobile schoolhouse/office for virtual school meetings and conference calls. As has been true with my children through most of COVID, the more challenges we’ve thrown at them, the more adjustments we’ve made, the more flexible and positive they’ve become, and the month on the road with Grayson highlighted this beautifully. They settled into camper life and our mini routines with ease and optimism. Bryan and I found our routines as well–gazing at whatever new surroundings were outside our window in the morning with steaming mugs of coffee warming our fingers; or curling up in the two recliners with our nightcaps after the kids went to bed, while we watched whatever channels we could get over the air and hung our feet over our plug-in heater/fake fireplace.
What We Learned About America
She truly is beautiful. We covered 13 states in our journey from North Carolina to Colorado and back, and I spent most of it just staring at our shifting and changing landscape, marveling at how many different climates and features and land forms decorate this vast country. The Rocky Mountains are often touted as being majestic, but just as majestic to me were the rugged mesas and deserts of New Mexico and Utah. My mind couldn’t comprehend the extension of land stretching out in front of me as we drove through the flat lands of Texas and Kansas. I kept thinking, surely this is the type of thing that was so eerie to early explorers when they wondered whether they would fall off the edge of the world. The sunsets out west just seemed bigger, grander and more colorful than what I experience at home when the sky is segmented by trees. The cities, new and bustling, always gave me little bit of nervous excitement as I wondered if we were actually going to make it through the traffic with our extra length. The arches and towers of rock jutting from the ground and canyon walls were startling and intimidating–until my kids started trying to figure out which animals or mythical creatures they resembled.
Just as noteworthy though, were the people we encountered. Although sitting in our homes and looking at the news we all are led to believe that Americans are disconnected, that we’ve changed for the worst, that we’ve lost the openness, the spirit and the drive we’re known for, I did not find that to be the case. From Alabama to Mississippi, to Texas, to New Mexico, to Utah and Colorado and Kansas and Illinois and Tennessee, we found people smiling, living, enjoying. In RV parks and state parks and homes across the nation we found people willing to share their stories of their days on the road. People congratulated us and encouraged us in our new venture, promising great memories in store. We experienced true blessings when our truck almost stranded us in New Mexico and a Ford dealership went above and beyond to help us two days before Christmas.
Mile after mile, my mind conjured up images of pioneers migrating, discovering, settling, building, persevering–images that I’ve never seen firsthand, images way before my time. But it was here on this land that dreams were pursued and captured and achieved, because America is a land of go-getters and doers. A land of seekers and adventurers–people who never give up.
It was a relief for me to see as our family pursued this, one of our own dreams in the midst of a nightmare, that the pioneer spirit has never left America. Why would we think that it left us in 2020? No challenge has ever deprived us of that spirit, and it won’t succumb to COVID either. The desires to create, innovate and cultivate, to build and inspire and connect are modern adaptations of those pioneer ways that live on in us, that thrive on community, and our American community is strong. It hearkens back to the days that we built it. In 2021, I pray and hope that we keep pushing, that we not allow the rumors to convince us what is true until we have gone and seen for ourselves…that there is always more beyond our horizons. Let us never give up.